“How Could You?” Parashat Behar-Bechukotai 5777

The bulk of Parashat Bechukotai consists of the tochecha – rebuke – in which the Torah lays out in frighteningly clear terms the horrible fate that awaits us if we stray from Hashem’s path. The tochecha strikes fear in the heart of anyone with the slightest amount of historical perspective. The midrash in Kohelet Rabba tells of the sage Rabbi Levi, who was so overcome while reading the tochecha that he could not even finish reading it. For this reason, the tochecha is traditionally read differently than the rest of the Torah[1]. Some people have the custom to read it quickly and quietly, so as to get it over with as painlessly as possible[2]. My Rabbi and my Teacher, Rabbi Silverman, instructed me to read the tochecha in a slow and mournful tone, the same way that the Book of Lamentations is read on Tisha b’Av, since because of our sins we have seen its horrors transpire before our very eyes.

Not all of the verses of the tochecha are read in a doleful tone. Certain verses are peppered with hope and so they are read normally. One example is a verse near the end of the tochecha [Vayikra 26:42]: “I will remember My covenant [with] Yaakov, and also My covenant [with] Yitzchak, and also My covenant [with] Avraham I will remember, and I will remember the land.”[3] Hashem looks at Am Yisrael and sees our forefathers, the same way that when I look at my grandchildren I can see my children’s faces in theirs. No matter how far we fall, we are still the children of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. For this reason, this verse forms one of the ten verses of “Zichronot” – “Remembrances” – in the mussaf prayer on Rosh HaShanah in which we ask Hashem to remember us for a good year.

Not everyone explains this verse in such a positive way. Rav Yeshaya HaLevi Horowitz, known as the Shelah HaKadosh after his most famous work “Shnei Luchot HaBrit”, interprets the verse differently, placing it squarely in the context of the tochecha. According to the Shelah, Hashem is berating us: How can it be that the sons of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov have sunk so low? You are not just any nation – you have a pedigree that is not shared by any other nation. And yet you have performed abominations that other peoples would not even consider. How could you? A closer look at the verses seems to vindicate the explanation of the Shelah. Notice how the verse is connected to the very next verse [Vayikra 26:43]: “The land will be bereft of them, appeasing its sabbaticals when it had been desolate of them, and they will gain appeasement for their iniquity. This is all in retribution for their having despised My ordinances and in retribution for their having rejected My statutes”. This particular verse is universally considered part of the tochecha and is read with the standard tochecha cantillation. This verse seamlessly follows the previous one: “and I will remember the land [that I gave to you, a land flowing with milk and honey. A land that would be the foundation upon which you built a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation. And yet you raped that very same land by not allowing it to rest every seven years as I commanded. This very same] land will be bereft of them”. How could you?

Rav Zalman Szorotzkin, writing in “Oznayim LaTorah”, has great difficulty with the explanation of the Shelah. If the Shelah is correct, he asks, why in the world would our verse be inserted in the Rosh HaShanah prayers? If the goal of our prayers on Rosh HaShanah is to beg Hashem to bless us with a good year, why would we “remind” Him that we come from a royal family but we have gone off the path. Sounds like an “own goal” to me.

A way ahead can be found two verses down the road [Vayikra 26:45]: “I will remember for them the covenant of the ancestors, whom I took out from the land of Egypt before the eyes of the nations, to be a God to them.” This verse is simultaneously similar to and yet different from the forefather verse. Notice that while the forefather verse begins with the words “I will remember”, this verse begins with the words “I will remember for them”, as if to say “for their benefit”[4]. This is a clear indication that this verse is not part of the tochecha and so we can compare it to the forefather verse in order to classify whether it, too, is not part of the tochecha.

Now let’s zoom in to this second verse. The Torah uses an abundance of pronouns here: “I will remember for them”, “whom I took out of Egypt”, and “to be a God to them”. Who is this “them” that we are talking about? Rashi gives what appears to be a simple answer to a simple question: All of the “thems” are referring to the people “whom I took out of Egypt”, that is to say, the six hundred thousand Jews who left Egypt together with Moshe Rabbeinu at the exodus. The explanation, however, is not at all simple. Remember what Hashem is saying: “I will remember for them” – for their sake. For their sake? The erstwhile slaves who left Egypt were anything but model citizens. They chided and attacked Moshe whenever they felt that they weren’t getting everything they wanted. They forced Aharon to build a golden calf. According to the Mishnah in Tractate Sanhedrin [10:3] these people have no share in the world to come. They share this fate with such upstanding people as King Yeravam, who led the secession from the Kingdom of Judah in order to establish an idolatrous kingdom in the North, and with Balaam, a prophet whose life goal it was to curse Am Yisrael and whose hobby was fornicating with his donkey[5]. Why would Hashem look at these six hundred thousand people and say “Well, they might have had their foibles, but at the end of the day they were good people. For their sake I will have mercy on my people.”

An answer can be found in the explanation of the Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson. The Rashbam always strives to be succinct, and so we must look at his words carefully. Here is what the Rashbam says verbatim: “The covenant of the ancestors” [that is to say] “For their sake I took them out.” Here we go again: more pronouns. I suggest explaining the Rashbam as follows: “For their sake [i.e. the sake of the ancestors, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov], I took them [i.e. the six hundred thousand misfits] out.” Even though these people had sunk to the lowest possible spiritual level, even though they were completely and entirely unworthy of being redeemed on their own merit, even though they would never even see the Land of Israel or the World to Come, Hashem still redeemed them for “their sake” – not for their own sake, but for the sake of the forefathers. And if these people can be redeemed, then it follows that we can surely  be redeemed, as well.

Now we can return to the forefather verse. When the verse appears in the context of the tochecha, it is indeed best understood as a continuation of the rebuke. It is best understood as Hashem saying “How could you?” The second verse teaches that the faces of the forefathers evoke not one, but, rather, two different emotions. “How could you?” metamorphoses into “How could I?” Yes, they are the children of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, and so I expect much better from them, but at the end of the day they are still the children of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, and so they are deserving of My unqualified love.

It is precisely this that we are asking from Hashem on Rosh HaShanah: While You have every right to expect better from us, remember not what we have done but from where we have come. Treat us with mercy because we are their children – the children of our forefathers.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka and Yechiel ben Shprintza.

[1] For a comprehensive list of customs pertaining to the reading of the tochecha, see  http://www.biu.ac.il/JH/Parasha/bechuko/talbi.doc

[2] This custom is somewhat problematic. The tochecha is a clear warning: Do good and you will be rewarded, do evil and you will be severely punished. Reading the tochecha quickly seems to be akin to closing one’s ears to a warning. If you don’t listen to the warning, how are you going to know how to act?

[3] For the rest of this shiur, we’ll refer to the verse as “the forefather verse”.

[4] See Rashi on Bereishit [12:1].

[5] According to the Midrash, at least, but like Rabbi Berel Wein says, whether or not they are “fake news”, the stories they tell about Richard Nixon are not the same stories they tell about Moshe Rabbeinu.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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